The Relation between Sensitivity Training and the Buddhist Teachings
“Developing Balanced Sensitivity” is a program I developed for training to achieve emotional balance. It is based on the Buddhist teachings, so all the various practices in it derive from Buddhist sources; but it’s a type of training that doesn’t require any Buddhist background or any Buddhist context for being able to engage in it. I developed it basically because many people were having problems in life and didn’t really know how to apply the Buddhist teachings for being able to help themselves with them. Those who were not already practicing Buddhism as well face these types of problems and it’s not always very easy to find methods for dealing with them. These are problems dealing with the issue of sensitivity.
The difficulty in applying Buddhist methods for this is that there’s no word for sensitivity in the Sanskrit or Tibetan languages. In order to be able to find methods from the Buddhist tradition that would help us with these types of problems, it’s necessary to analyze what actually are the different factors that are involved with sensitivity.
Attentiveness and Responsiveness
When we analyze, we find that actually there are two components that are involved in training our sensitivity. These are (1) attentiveness, in other words how we pay attention, and (2) responsiveness, how we respond. Of course, when we’re speaking about sensitivity, we’re speaking about emotional sensitivity. We’re not speaking about allergies and that type of sensitivity.
There are difficulties in how we pay attention. Either we pay too much attention or we pay too little attention; and then how we respond: we either over-respond or we don’t respond enough or at all. The areas that we’re talking about are (1) the effects of our behavior – this is in terms of the effect of our behavior on others and the effect of our behavior on ourselves – and (2) situations: the situation of others and our own situation.
When you put all these factors together there are many, many variants that we have and which we can have problems with. For instance, we don’t pay attention enough to the effect of our behavior on others or we’re too worried about the effect that it has on others. Somebody says something to us and our feelings are hurt so quickly and we over-respond. Or we don’t care what other people think and we don’t care that we might be interrupting them or something like that. We could notice what’s going on, but not act or do anything. Or we could actually do something, but have no feeling behind it; or we could have unbalanced judgment about how we respond or how we deal with the situation. All of these difficulties concern the issue of sensitivity.
Why the Program Was Developed
I developed this program in the late 1990’s and, in developing it and thinking about the various issues that people face, I was concerned primarily with the interactions that people had in normal, everyday contact with others: at work, their family, their friends and so on. So I’ve developed this program, and it has 22 exercises. That’s a very, very full program, so I’ll describe it only a little bit.
It takes three years to work through it, having a class every week, working very gradually, carefully, slowly. I taught it twice in Berlin for three years each time and gave introductions to this in many countries around the world and people find it very effective.
But times have changed. When I developed it, this was before social networking; it was before text messaging and multitasking that so many people are involved with nowadays. It seems to me that people now need such programs as this even more than previously, because there’s even more imbalance in sensitivity in response to all these advances in technology. I’ve made a list of just a few examples of imbalance that one can think of quickly and easily in terms of our modern age of social networking.
Effects of Insensitivity
I read something on the Internet news recently, that there was a murder, a shooting on a subway car. I forget where it was, whether it was New York or San Francisco or somewhere like that, and there was a security camera and it showed the people in the subway car. Most of the people were so absorbed in their cell phone and texting or playing video games or something like that, in their own little world, that they didn’t even notice that somebody was being killed in the same subway car as they were. They didn’t even look up. This is an extreme example of insensitivity, not paying attention, being absolutely, just totally absorbed in your own little world, as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist.
Some people have difficulty in actually responding to others in a sincere human type of way, so they take on false identities on the Internet and interact with others under this false identity. Or, not using very good judgment, they respond to others in a way that is far, far too little; in other words rather than having a conversation with somebody or interacting with somebody, they just send them a text message. Or they don’t even do that; they might put something up on Twitter so that the whole world sees it as well.
There’s insensitivity to any sense of privacy that somebody else might want. And there’s the whole phenomenon of “likes” on Facebook and being really concerned with how many “likes” one has and then getting all depressed if you don’t have enough “likes,” which again is basically just concerned about “me.” How many people like “me?” And sometimes, our emotional response is not really about whether they actually like me or not, it’s more about how many “likes” “I” get. So it’s concerned about “me” in this sense.
Then there’s being insensitive to our own situation, like sitting at home and looking at Facebook and seeing all the pictures of everybody else’s holidays and how wonderful and good a time they’re having and “Poor me, I’m sitting here just looking at it on a computer.” People get more depressed then, so they’re oversensitive about their own situation, aggravated by Facebook. The conclusion is that people, even more than in the past, need something like sensitivity training to be able to help them with the problems that are just getting worse and worse because of the developments in social networking and technology.
The Two Legs with Which Sensitivity Training Proceeds
What can be done? This program has, as I said, 22 exercises and it works in progressive stages. I like to explain the entire training as resting or standing on two legs: the two fundamental things that are necessary. The whole training program depends on these two fundamental things that we need to develop. These are what’s called a “quiet mind” and a “caring heart” or “caring attitude.”
A Quiet Mind
Having a quiet mind means that we quiet down all the conversation, judgments, distraction, music, all these other things that are going on in our minds, so that we actually are quiet and pay attention and are open to the other person, or open to our own feelings.
Originally when I developed the program, I was concerned with problems, which people still have of course, of being over concerned with pleasing everybody else. And so they never really quiet down their worrying about that and consider, “What do I feel?” This often happens with people who are always incapable of saying no and who therefore overextend themselves. That’s if you have social interaction; there are people who don’t even have social interaction. If you’re constantly listening to music, you’re not able to really quiet down and see, “What do I feel? What are my feelings? What are my needs?” You have to quiet down this extraneous thought.
In actual face-to-face interactions with others, it’s important to not to be thinking of something else. “When is this person going to shut up and leave me? Maybe there’s a message on my Facebook, or something like that, that I’m missing because I’m wasting my time actually talking to this person.” All these sorts of thoughts. Another example that’s so weird is you’re talking to someone and then you think, “Wow, what they said was so great. Excuse me.” You don’t necessarily even say “excuse me,” you just think that you have to tweet it, or you have to message it to somebody else. That’s not a quiet mind.
Originally when I developed the program, I was also thinking more in terms of judgmental thoughts, “Oh, that’s stupid, what this person said.” Or bringing up stories from their past history and not really staying in the present. These we have to, of course, quiet down as well. “Quiet” down doesn’t mean that we don’t feel anything. “Quiet down” just means that we’re open to having positive feelings that actually deal with the situation.
Of course, Buddhism has many, many methods for quieting the mind. A very simple one is just to let go, to recognize that I’m thinking “Blah, blah, blah” in my head and just let go of it. We can help ourselves to do that by imagining a closed fist and then opening up our hand and letting go of this thought. There are several other methods, but this is not the occasion to give a complete discussion of all the methods that are taught in each of these exercises.
A Caring Heart
The second leg is what I call the “caring heart” or the “caring attitude.” Once we’ve quieted down, this is to recognize the other person or ourselves in terms of “You’re a human being, you have feelings just as I do and the way that I act toward you and the way that I speak with you are going to affect your feelings, just as the way that you act and speak with me affect my feelings. So I take you seriously and I take the fact that you have feelings seriously and I care about you.” It’s not that I’m worried about your feelings, but I have deep concern, sincere concern about them, not just scientific interest.
I think in our age of social media that this caring heart is even more important than before, because in many ways, in the name of being more connected with others, we are actually less connected with others because we don’t really consider the other person as having feelings and being a real person. They’re just somebody on a computer screen or somebody in an text message that you can turn off when you don’t want to deal with them anymore.
If things go in the direction of everybody else becoming characters in a grand, large computer game in virtual reality that you can somehow interact with or press a button and the game is finished and it’s not there anymore, you don’t have to deal with it anymore, then we’re not taking the other person seriously as a human being. And we’re not taking ourselves seriously as a human being, because that’s the way that we are interacting with others.
So these are the two basic things that we develop here. We precede the training by generating a quiet mind and a caring heart. Every exercise begins with reaffirming those two. Then the rest of the exercises are divided into stages. There are four basic stages that we need to work on, and then a fifth one: the more advanced training.
The Basic Fundamentals
Imagining Ideal Sensitivity
The first stage is the basic fundamentals that we need for developing ourselves further. First we use our imaginations to try to picture what ideal sensitivity would be like. This would include:
- Not having mental stories going on with comments in our minds
- Sincere care and concern for others
- Being non-judgmental – not making judgments about them or myself, “How stupid I am,” and so on
- No sense of self-importance – with which we would feel, “I’m the center of the world and everybody should pay attention to me and I don’t care what you think; it’s just important what I think”
- No solid walls between us – in personal interactions with somebody, not having our shields up or big walls up around us, not being defensive
- No fears
- Being joyful – being happy to be with a person
- Having warmth and understanding – being an understanding person, able to give sympathy and understand what their problems are
- Facial expression – not being completely stone-faced as if we’re bored and can’t wait for the person we're with to be quiet and go away, hoping that our phone will ring so that they’ll stop
- Self-control – to control ourselves not to hurt the other person by either what we say or do
- Kind words – we need to pay attention to the tone of our voice and what we’re saying.
- Thoughtful actions – we need to think before we act.
- Spontaneous – not being stiff, but also being aware that the way that we act has an effect on the other person, so not just doing anything that comes to our heads. For some people, when they’re very sad and depressed, a hug is appropriate. But for somebody else who is sad and depressed that hug might not be appropriate, so be thoughtful and use your judgment correctly.
We imagine what it would be like to be like that. You have to have some idea of the goal that you’re aiming for, in order to reach it. Can you imagine trying to be like that?
Affirming Our Natural Abilities
Then we have to affirm and assess in the next exercise our natural abilities. “Can I become like that? Do I have the working material?” We do and we reaffirm that by remembering times when we have had each of these qualities.
- Feeling joy and being relaxed like lying in a warm bed – you know what that feels like.
- Being focused and paying attention – if you write you have to be focused, or if you type you have to be focused otherwise you make mistakes. So the fact that we are capable of writing or typing indicates that we can focus. Texting obviously requires a lot of focus.
- Feeling warmth and showing warmth – if you’ve ever petted a kitten or puppy in your lap, you have that sense of warmth.
- Understanding – if you know how to tie your shoes, you have some level of understanding of how to do something and can do it with correct understanding.
- Self-control not to cause harm – for instance, when removing a splinter from your finger, you’re quite capable of exercising great self-control to be very careful about how you do it.
- Feeling inspired and uplifted with energy – something inspires most people, listening to music, a sunset, something inspires them, so we are capable of feeling uplifted and energetic.
You see, for developing ourselves it’s very important to first have an idea of what it is that we want to accomplish and then an affirmation that we do have the working materials for being able to reach that point. It’s just a matter of developing those qualities, but we do have those qualities. If it can be demonstrated to us that we do have the qualities, then we can feel a little bit confident that it’s possible.
Refraining from Destructive Behavior
Another aspect – a fundamental aspect – of our sensitive dealing with others and with ourselves is to refrain from destructive behavior, so an ethical basis, “I’m not going to do something destructive and harmful to you, I’m not going to do something that is self-destructive.” With this exercise, we recognize various aspects of our behavior that are destructive to others or destructive to ourselves. Not only not being honest with others, but not being honest with ourselves, these types of things. Being involved with behavior that is harmful to others, but also harmful to ourselves, like over-working, not getting enough rest, not eating properly, not getting exercise, these are self-destructive.
There are many subtle aspects that are involved with this. You’re with an older person, you’re walking with them, so don’t walk too quickly, don’t speak so softly that the older person can’t really hear what you’re saying. These types of things. They seem quite small but actually it is really very important if you’re going to act in a sensitive way with somebody with special needs, like an older person.
Don’t be judgmental about it. Sometimes when the other person has difficulty hearing you and you have to speak more loudly with them, you tend to think that the other person is stupid because you have to speak more loudly with them. That’s judgmental isn’t it? That’s another component of our balanced sensitivity, not being judgmental. They didn’t understand what we said because they couldn’t hear properly, but we think they didn’t understand what we said because they’re stupid.
Combining Warmth with Understanding
Then the last exercise in this area is to combine warmth with understanding. We need a combination of the two. Like, “I shall take you seriously because you, your words and feelings are real.” For instance, “When I said I was upset, that was for real, and so you need to understand and be warm toward me.” Likewise, when you said that you were upset, I need to take that seriously and treat you with warmth and understanding. As I said, all of these exercises have many, many parts. I can just introduce a little bit about each of them.
Uncovering the Talents of Our Minds and Hearts
The second phase of the training is called “Uncovering the Talents of Our Minds and Hearts.” If we see that we do have the working materials for being able to develop this balanced, healthy sensitivity to others and to ourselves, then how do we access them? That’s the question and that’s what this section is dealing with.
From “Me” to Mental Activity
First we need to shift our focus from me and myself to just the mental activity that is occurring. Like somebody says something to us and rather than focusing on “He just said that to me,” and all of that, “What should I say now?” and so on, to just see that what is actually happening is just hearing sounds. That’s all that’s happening. Hearing somebody speak. That’s the mental activity. Alright? It’s the arising of a mental hologram of the sounds. They say only one word and one syllable at a time that you hear, but in your head it’s put it together into a sentence that has meaning. That’s what hearing is. There’s no concrete “me” that’s the observer or the controller, separate from it. Yet, I’m accountable for what I experience and what I do. What we’re trying to do here is to become more objective in terms of our experience.
The contents are changing all the time of what we experience. The mental activity of hearing those contents is individual and I’m responsible for what I do and what I say in response to it, and I will experience the effect of it. But the main thing is just to focus on the fact that it is just mental activity that is going on. Just mental activity.
Our Individual Mental Activity Is Always Happening
Then, with the next exercise we realize that this mental activity is very fundamental. It’s very subtle: it’s always there: the arising of some mental hologram, I call it, and some perception of it is always happening.
For instance, we’re seeing somebody and so we see an upsetting expression on their face: the person is upset. We then examine what's happening with our mental activity of seeing and come to realize:
- My own emotions don’t block my seeing the face, there’s still the arising of that sight. I’m seeing it whether I’m upset, I’m afraid or whatever: that doesn’t block the seeing.
- My verbal thought doesn’t block it either.
- If I think that I can’t relate to this other person and their problems, that doesn’t make me incapable of still seeing that they’re upset.
- They are upset: I’m incapable of changing the reality if I think, “Well, this person doesn’t exist, or they’re a monster,” or whatever. That doesn’t change the reality.
- No matter what is going on extraneously in my mind, that mental activity of just seeing the person, seeing their upset face, or hearing their upset words, is still going on. It’s always there.
Accessing the Natural Talents of the Mind and Heart
Then the next exercise is accessing these natural talents of our mind and heart in general. This is a very deep exercise to quiet down, to relax down. We do this by progressively letting go of:
- Muscle tension
- Any verbal thinking or mental images we might have
- Preconceptions – about the other person, about ourselves and about our possible interaction
- Not just verbal judgements, but also non-verbal judgments – without actually having to say in our minds that “this person is stupid” or “what a pain they are,” but still non-verbally we could be judgmental.
- Projected roles and associated expectations we might have of ourselves or the other person – such as, “I’m the mother, you’re the child. The mother is supposed to act like this, the child is supposed to act like that.” Or, “You’re my partner. You’re supposed to be like that. I have to be like this role.”
If you can quiet down and let go of all of that so that all the stress and tension is gone, then what you notice – and people do notice this – is that there is a natural sense of warmth and openness to the other person. You’re naturally attentive and concerned. There’s no hesitation or anxiety in responding in whatever ways seem appropriate. All of that is possible and we see it if we stop thinking, “Me, me, me. What do they think of me?” and all of that. See that it’s just mental activity and that’s all that is going on and if you can quiet down enough, the natural qualities are there as part of your mind and heart that you can access.
Five Types of Deep Awareness
The next thing we do is learn to work with what’s called “the five types of deep awareness,” which are the basic ways in which the mind works, the way that mental activity works.
Mirror-like Deep Awareness
With what’s called “mirror-like deep awareness,” we take in information. Well, we take in a lot of information; it’s just that we don’t pay attention to it. If you really look at the other person, you can tell so much from their facial expression, from their body language, from how they take care of themselves, how they dress, how they keep themselves. We see a lot; all that information is coming in. If you’re quiet enough, then you can pay attention to it.
If you really listen to what the other person says, you can tell so much from the tone of voice, the emotion that’s behind it, even the volume. Somebody who speaks so softly that you can’t even hear them very well: usually that’s somebody who lacks a great deal of self-confidence. There’s a lot that is conveyed by even the way that people speak and the volume that they use.
Equalizing Deep Awareness
The next type of deep awareness is what is called “equalizing deep awareness,” namely seeing patterns in terms of people’s behavior, putting things together. We’re capable of doing that. You have to be able to do that, otherwise how do you know that these two people are women and those two people are men? We are able to see things as having similarities.
Individualizing Deep Awareness
Then “individualizing deep awareness.” So despite seeing the patterns in other people’s behavior, for instance when we’re with our partner, and starting to make sense of what’s going on with them in terms of their patterns, so it helps us to understand them; with this deep awareness, we also see the individuality of this particular situation and that it has its individual characteristics. Each instance that fits in the pattern is not always the same.
Accomplishing Deep Awareness
Then there is the accomplishing awareness to respond to what we perceive with the other types of deep awareness. This is just the willingness to respond in terms of doing something to or with what we perceive, accomplishing something. Even a worm knows, when it sees food, to respond to it by eating it, on the basis of seeing different pieces of food as equally being food. A worm knows that.
Reality Deep Awareness
Then there’s reality deep awareness, to know what this is and to know what specifically to do, not just to respond in general, but what specifically to do.
These are the tools that are part of the talents of the mind. They’re how the mind works, which we can use. In fact, we use them in everyday life. To explain very simply, you see the hole in the wall over there and you know that that’s a door and you know what to do with it, you know that you can walk through it and you know that you have to open the door, you can’t just smack into the door itself. That’s how our mind works. We see many different doors and we all know that they are all equally doors and what to do with each of them; so the same thing applies in terms of people equally being upset and what most people like. But this is an individual case so it has to be individualized.
All of that is this second phase, uncovering the talents of our mind and heart.
Dispelling Confusion about Appearances
The third phase is “dispelling confusion about appearances.” What we pay attention to and what we respond to are basically the appearances, how things appear to us. Remember, mental activity is the making of appearances, mental holograms. And that’s what seeing is, hearing is, thinking is.
Try to understand this concept of mental holograms, it’s very important. What do we see? There are all these people sitting here in front of me and light is coming and hitting my retina and that is being translated into electric and chemical impulses. Somehow that is, on an experiential level, translated into a mental hologram, which is what we see. It’s not that there is a mental hologram that you can find inside our heads. That’s why we say it’s mental, but really, physiologically, all that is happening is the firing of neurons and chemicals.
Mental Holograms Combine with Projections
The problem is that the mental activity puts projections on top of these mental holograms. Often we react to the projection rather than to the actual situation. For instance, somebody didn’t call us; that’s just a fact, we didn’t hear from them. Then we project onto them, “They don’t like me anymore,” and all of that; whereas it could just be that the battery on their phone ran out. We have to first validate the appearances that we perceive. We have to confirm the actual conventional appearance that we see and note any inflation or exaggeration that we might have of it.
Like you’re living with somebody and they didn’t wash the dishes, they didn’t clean up, something like that. That’s the fact, but then we project onto it, “You’re a horrible slob; you never clean up and you’re so irresponsible,” etc. The method for deconstructing this projection is see that that projection is like a balloon that we have blown up out of the situation. We then imagine that we burst that balloon, but not in a dualistic sense of a “me” that’s separate from it pricking it with a pin, but just that it bursts.
Or we could imagine that there’s a fairy tale story book of the prince or princess, or the mess or the self-righteous victim and the lazy horrible slob – whatever type of story that you’re making up out of the thing. Just slam the book shut, no more fairy tale story. That’s this first exercise.
Deconstructing Deceptive Appearances
Then we have a series of exercises of deconstructing deceptive appearances, projections. First we visualize life’s changes, like someone growing old, in order to deconstruct the deceptive appearance of the person being only one age and only that way forever. It’s how we perceive it. We see somebody, for instance an old person with Alzheimer’s and we think they were always like that. We don’t think at all that they were a regular functioning person; they had a life, they had a profession, they had a family and so on. It’s as if they were only that and only that way forever, this Alzheimer’s person that doesn’t even know their own name. And then we’re afraid to interact with them; we’re afraid to touch them even.
Like for instance we’re with somebody, our partner and they’re upset, and then we say, “Oh, you’re always upset.” What does that mean? That every moment of their life from the time that they were a baby until now and until they die, they’re upset? We forget about life’s changes, that there are so many different other situations. We don’t see that situation in the context of the whole relationship. That’s very important in relationships, where we tend to forget the whole context of all the different aspects of our interaction with somebody. Just because one particular instance now is so dramatic, we tend to think that that’s it, you know? That’s a complete inflation, isn’t it?
Or the same things in terms of ourselves, we think, “I’m always this way; it will always be like this.” It’s important to think of the context of your whole life, how you develop through your life. You weren’t always at this particular stage where you can’t find a job or you’re having difficulty in a relationship or something like that. Life goes through many, many phases, many changes. You see the larger context.
Dissecting our Experiences into Parts and Causes
Then in the next exercise, we dissect our experience into parts and causes. For instance, somebody is upset. Well, there are many, many causes for that, not just “What I said upset you. I’m the whole cause,” or “You’re just a horrible person and you always get upset.” You know how it is when we come home or our partner comes home if we’re the one that’s at home. It’s as if we imagine that this person had nothing going on in their life before we came home, or before they came home. They’re here right now and the fact that they had a difficult day in the office or they had a difficult day at home with the children during the day doesn’t exist in our minds. So we need to see that the way they are acting now, the way they are feeling now, is dependent on what happened before, during the day. It is not just what we see happening right in front of our eyes without anything having occurred before.
I think this is most relevant in terms of text messaging and all the emails and messages that we send to each other. It’s as if we imagine that the other person has absolutely nothing going on in their lives. If they don’t answer and respond instantly we get very upset. We are totally insensitive to the fact that they have a life going on and when you call somebody you need to ask, “Are you busy? Do you have a moment? Is this a good time or should I call later?”
It’s incredibly insensitive and self-important to think that I can interrupt you at any time with an SMS or a telephone call and you have to respond instantly. In terms of what people’s situations are, the mood that they’re in, etc., there are all the causal factors of their childhood, their parents and what was going at work and their health and so many different things; so deconstruct it.
Our Experience as Waves on the Ocean
Then there are further exercises in terms of seeing our experiences as waves on the ocean; our emotions go way, way up, but the wave comes down. “How dare you say that to me?!” Somebody says something really offensive and you get very hurt and so on, like a big wave on the ocean. But if you just relax, like with the ocean wave, you gradually calm down. Just see this as a mental activity like a big wave in the ocean of your mind. Let it calm down; don’t let it disturb the depths of the ocean.
For instance, somebody says something to us; they say something really offensive, or really shocking or really quite critical of us. What was the mental activity? We had this in the first exercise of this section. All it is is hearing. You just heard words, that’s all that happened. If you’ve quieted down enough with yourself through practice, you can feel inside yourself the energy getting disturbed. Somebody says these harsh words to you and it’s like you feel it in your stomach almost, a tightness of your energy. That’s like this big wave on the ocean, but the mind is just hearing, that’s like the ocean. It’s like that.
The mind is just this very calm ocean, just hearing words, but then it tightens up with this feeling in your stomach, as if it’s trying to make a concrete “me” that’s standing and shouting, “You said that to me! How dare you!” It’s very tight. Here what you have to do is just let it go back down. It’s just a wave on the ocean. It’s no big deal. Let it calm down and again become or be the ocean. Then all it is, is you heard some words and then in a calm way you can respond, not in this: “How dare you! Me, me, me!”
Then we have exercises to combine these different ways of deconstructing our appearances with compassion.
Responding with Balanced Sensitivity
Then the fourth section, which is the last phase of this basic training, is “responding with balanced sensitivity.” In other words, once we’ve deconstructed the projections, we actually see what’s going on with the other person or with ourselves, so that we’re neither projecting nor ignoring what’s going on, like when you’re insensitive. Then you need to be able to respond to the actual situation. What we want is to be able to respond to the reality, rather than respond to our fantasy.
Adjusting Our Mental Factors
The first exercise is “adjusting our mental factors.” We learn about the different factors that are there with our mental activity: how we pay attention, how much interest we have in things, what we can distinguish in a situation or in a person, how we concentrate, how we discriminate, what our intentions are. And we see that with all of these factors we can change them, we can adjust them, but not in a dualistic way of “me” over here and adjusting the knobs on a radio over there; but just change them. Show more interest about what the other person says, not “Oh, how boring,” and then “I don’t care.” Take interest, that’s the way that you interact with people, you take interest in their lives. “What’s going on with you?” Be sincere.
We see that it is possible to develop interest. If there were a whole bunch of sweaters here, we wouldn’t have very much interest in it. But if it were really cold and we needed to find a sweater to put on because we’re really cold, we would take interest in them. It is possible to change and adjust our mental factors.
Unblocking Our Feelings
Then we have a very important exercise that has to do with “unblocking our feelings.” It involves accepting suffering and being able to give happiness, because sometimes we are with someone and that person is really upset or really sad, and we are afraid to really accept that and to deal with that and feel with that. We are blocked in feeling sympathy and empathy.
We’re frightened, basically. We have to learn that there is nothing to be frightened of in terms of feelings. Or we’re too busy, so we can’t be bothered. We have to learn that although you can feel sad at another person’s sadness, that doesn’t mean you overreact and then start crying and the other person has to comfort you. Rather, despite empathizing with their sadness, the question is how to be capable of comforting and cheering them up. How do we do that? Where do you get that balance of feeling sensitive to their suffering and sadness, but being able to give that comfort and warmth and understanding? It’s a good exercise to develop that.
It’s quite interesting that if we’re a parent and we have a small child and the small child is very upset, that somehow we figure out how to do that. The child gets hurt and of course you’re very sad that the child fell and hurt himself or herself, but nevertheless you have to give warmth and comfort and not get all upset yourself, not freak out yourself. Much more difficult is when you’re dealing with your partner. It all comes down to basically realizing that there’s nothing to be afraid of with feelings and to be relaxed with them.
These are very simple exercises not to be afraid of feelings. You do it by working with physical feelings. You scratch your hand very hard; then you just hold your hand, and then you tickle your hand. What’s the difference? It’s just a sensation. No big deal. More difficult is if the person next to you scratches your hand really hard, just holds your hand and tickles your hand. What’s the difference? There is no difference; it’s just a physical sensation. Actually, it’s very interesting to experience that and to analyze the difference in how you deal with that. Your emotional response to that is very interesting.
Making Sensitive Decisions
Then the last exercise is “making sensitive decisions,” what to actually do. Here, first of all we have to check the facts; are we responding to reality and not to our projections? Once we have a good idea of what reality is, then we have to analyze: what do I feel like doing? What do I want to do? What do I need to do? What does intuition tell me?
An example that I use, which is I think quite clear, is going on a diet.
- I want to go on a diet – then you analyze what are the reasons you want to go on a diet – for health or to look better or whatever.
- Do I need to go on a diet? – is it just that I’m anorexic and I have this fantasy that I’m too fat, or do I really need to because of high blood pressure or whatever?
- What do I feel like doing? – well, my friend just brought over a cake for me. I feel like eating it. I want to be on a diet, I need to be on a diet, but I feel like eating. Why do I feel like eating the cake? Greed, attachment, desire. It was a friend who brought the cake, etc.
Then you examine: are you being honest with yourself? “Well, the bodhisattva vows say that if somebody offers me something, they will get the merit from being generous, so I will eat the piece of the cake that they took. But that’s a justification, because actually I’m really greedy and I really want to eat this cake!” Be honest with yourself about what’s going on. “Out of compassion for you, I will eat the cake.” Who are we fooling?
In any case, you evaluate the reasons why you want to do something, why you need to do it, why you feel like doing something else and then make a rational decision. The person that I’m with is upset, I want to run away, but I need to stay and comfort them and I feel like, “Oh, I just wish that this person would calm down. I feel like I’m hopeless and that I don’t know what to do.” You evaluate all these things. “I want to run away, I don’t feel like dealing with this but I need to deal with it.” And the need is more important, the reason for the need is more important than my fear, or whatever it is, that I don’t feel like dealing with this. So then you deal with it.
Actually, that is a very important principle to follow in our work. How often are we at work and “I don’t really want to do this. I really don’t feel like doing this, but I need to do this. And why do I need to do this? So I can pay the rent,” or whatever. It doesn’t matter that, “I don’t feel like doing this stupid job” – you do it. “I want to do something else” – so what! Then you make the best of the situation. You deal with it in a sensitive way. That’s the basic training.
The advanced training is further exercises that go into a deeper deconstruction of our projections.
Steps for Practice
The actual method that we use for each exercise entails working through many, many parts. That’s why it takes usually three or four sessions for each exercise.
First we practice the exercise with people who are not there. This has two phases: first with photos or pictures from a magazine and then just thinking about people. In the case of the exercise for developing a caring heart, we think, “You’re a human being and you have feelings just as I do,” so you look at a picture of somebody that you have a close relationship with, somebody who is just a mere acquaintance, someone who is a stranger – a picture out of a magazine – and somebody you don’t like. “You’re a human being, you have feelings just as I do.” Then again we work with three people or four people: someone we really like, someone that’s just an acquaintance, somebody that’s just a stranger that works in a store that we go to and someone we don’t like, but now just thinking of them.
Then we work with live people, people who are here, each other. We sit in a circle and we do this looking around the circle at each person. “You’re a human being, you have feelings. And you have feelings, you have feelings, you have feelings.” And of course that has to go after this point of “I’ll stop making stories and comments in my mind about each person,” and for people to feel comfortable with that, not to start laughing or having that type of distraction. Also it’s not like we’re staring at each other, like looking at animals in the zoo.
Then if people feel comfortable enough and, culturally there might be variants on this, we work one to one. It’s very strong, very effective emotionally. One person says to the other one, “You’re a human being, you have feelings, I care for you,” and the other person listening feels that they are being accepted, that there is somebody that cares for them. Then you switch roles. This is very strong emotionally.
If there’s enough variety in the group and there’s enough time, then it’s very helpful to repeat that type of one-to-one exercise with somebody of your own gender and then somebody of the opposite gender. If there’s enough variation in age to do that, then with an older person and a younger person speaking to each other. Very interesting, a young person saying to an old person, “You’re a human being and you have feelings just like I do.”
Then the last phase of any exercise is directed toward ourselves. This phase is done first with a mirror, looking at ourselves. Notice your facial expression and all of these things. “I’m a human being,” etc. If we’re practicing in a group and there’s a large mirror, we can all look at ourselves together in this mirror and see that, “I’m just like everybody else. There’s no difference. Just as everybody in the group has feelings, so do I. Just as everybody is a human being with needs and understanding, there’s no difference. I’m just one of this group of penguins in Antarctica.”
Then we do the exercise without a mirror. Then, the most moving is doing it with pictures of ourselves from earlier parts of our life, especially parts of our life where we have regrets and feel negatively toward ourselves. “I was a human being then, I had feelings, I was just trying my best,” and so on, and to develop this type of sensitivity to ourselves and our history.
You can see that these exercises can be very emotionally moving, that’s why it’s very important to not go too quickly and to let people have time to express their experiences and to ask questions after each piece of each exercise. We also need to recognize that this is not a training for people who have deep emotional problems. You need to be basically a little bit stable, because a lot of emotions are going to come up. Make it quite clear that if any of the exercises are emotionally too difficult, you don’t have to do it. This is why the very, very first exercise, which is the quiet mind is so important, because what you’re constructing is a protected space in which a basic fundamental principle of the group is that it’s going to be non-judgmental, “I’m not going to tell stories in my mind about you, that what you’re experiencing and so on is so stupid or I’m going to look down on you,” etc. It’s this protected space that people feel comfortable in.
Although one could do this training by oneself – without a group and I have indicated in the book how to do that – it is of course much more effective if you do it in a small group. Not a big group, a small group.
That’s the basic training and there have been a few groups around the world that have started doing this without me, because I certainly don’t have time to really develop this and spread it. There’s been a group in Mexico that’s still going on; there’s a group in Germany, like that. People are welcome to do this training. As I found from my own experience of teaching it, it really takes about three years to go through it at a comfortable rate, dealing with each of the exercises and each of the parts of the exercises once a week.
Once you have worked with the training, or even part of the training, it can be a very helpful exercise to remind yourselves of these various points in your daily practice or meditation or whatever you do, because for each exercise – and I have handbook that goes with this – there are the keywords that you use to remind yourselves of the points of each particular exercise.